Many say that he is not a spell-binding speaker. He seems a little awkward, even bewildered, on the stage before tens of thousands of people. Some say he is old and has maybe lost a step or two. Indeed, he confesses his limitations with a wry self-deprecating humor. Yet, the masses came and then went away from the massive CityFest a week ago Saturday in Central Park with a feeling that Luis Palau, international evangelist and heir to Billy Graham’s tradition of stadium evangelism, cared personally for each and every one of them.
That was part of the magic of the event: it called out the power of the personal in a mass society.
The Palau model is “not mass evangelism” but “personal evangelism in a concerted effort,” said Andrew Palau, son of Luis.
The personalizing of the mass event started even before the action on stage. Latinos marched proudly underneath flags displaying their various home countries. The emblems of Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Ecuador flew high as claims to unique paths to the city. The event was spearheaded by the thriving Latino communities in the city.
Early in the afternoon, musical acts like American Idol semi-finalist Mandisa and five-time Grammy Award winner Marcos Witt sang soulfully as each audience member envisioned themselves onstage with them.
Then, former Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera appeared as the worldly wise uncle. Seeing their hero in the flesh elicited beams from the face of every man in the audience. Rivera recounted his journey from the Panama baseball leagues to the big time in New York City. He credited his amazing pitching ability to a gift from God.
Although Rivera is a loyal member of the New York Yankee system, he says it was God that shoe-horned him into success within the organization. “Only God—because I allowed him to do it through me,” the two-time MVP revealed to his fans. He encouraged each one that if he or she dedicated a life to God then He would use each individual to make a difference in this world.
Later in the afternoon, Palau and other church leaders stood beside Mayor Bill de Blasio as he proclaimed how the city was the result of group efforts like those that the churches represented. He praised that “from the beginning...people of faith have made the city” with their acts of public service.
“Spread that love, spread that service,” de Blasio encouraged the crowd by invoking their group identity. “Together we can create a more loving city, a more just city.”
Then, the assembled church leaders subtly shifted the mayor’s mass appeal into something else. Instead of praying for the city, they prayed for him as the leader of the city. They asked God to give the mayor “the wisdom of Solomon and the fortitude of Esther” as he confronted the challenge of bringing all the ethnic and religious agendas into harmony for the sake of the community’s welfare. They had come back to the CityFest theme of empowering the individual so that the mass would do well.
In a contemporary personalization they invoked a man and woman as exemplars for the mayor. But the theme of the prayer went way back to the times when Israel was ruled by the great King Solomon and then beset later by a suffocating conquest in the time of Queen Esther.
God the Heavenly King offered Solomon anything he wished. Solomon’s response was to ask that God make him a wiser person so that he could discern how to apply knowledge and spiritual principles to changeable individual contexts. The Book of Proverbs and The Book of Ecclesiastes reflect this tradition of boiling down the big picture to the results of individual character and abilities.
Esther, a Jewish woman, faced maybe a more difficult challenge of how to live under a conqueror. At the time the Jews were faced with a court plot for an ethnic cleansing against them. She cunningly used her influence to stop the eradication of her people.
By referencing these figures, the pastors indicated to the attendees that de Blasio is part of the great tradition of Biblical heroes who flourish a community. They also were finding the way evangelicals could play a role for the civic good. One such role would be responsibility for giving wise counsel and prayers for those in power.
As the sun set, the evening cooled and the smell of citronella blanketed the lawn. The mass event settled into family time. Families settled onto the grass. Wives leaned their heads on their husbands’ shoulders. Some children curled up next to their mothers’ legs. Others fought sleepiness by standing and bouncing on their toes.
Grandfatherly Palau took the stage. In a common sense tone he taught the crowd by telling stories. A little boy calculates how life will be different after his parents get divorced. A father commits suicide and leaves his family emotionally and financially bereft. A husband leaves his wife for a younger squeeze. A woman’s Alzheimer's worsens and she no longer recognizes her family’s faces.
“There’s heartache everywhere,” Palau summarized, speaking across the board to the pains of the many who had gathered. Members of the crowd reflected, “He could be talking about me.”
Palau offered a way out tailored for every heartache. He told the people there that Jesus had forgiven each one for every wrong that he or she had doled out, so that then each could forgive the wrongs that they received form others. If each person knew that Jesus loves them, they would never feel alone. And when they die, heaven will be a “party that will never end” between them and Jesus.
Palau offered each person the opportunity to pray and ask Jesus to be there in his or her life. He asked those who wanted this opportunity to raise their hands. Standing attentively in the crowd were trained counselors wearing yellow and black-and-white shirts. As people in the audience raised their hands, the team members weaved through the legs and blankets of those sitting on the grass to get next to each individual.
The plan, as explained to A Journey beforehand, was that a counselor would ask a new believer to share his or her story that lead up to their attendance at the fest. The counselors were looking for a key piece of information: how to stay in touch with the new follower of Jesus. How did they hear about the event? Did a friend invite them? Do they attend a church? What’s the best way to get in touch with them?
The counselors wrote down the contact information on small postcards that they turned in at the end of the night. The Palau Association then distributed the cards to local churches tailored to the responses that the new believer provided.
If the neophyte Christian came with a friend, the referral would probably be to the friend’s church. Students were referred to campus ministries, and business men and women were steered toward a network of corporate leaders who helped with the movement leading up to the big event.
An impressive number of cards was turned into the counselors. Andrew Palau said that over 3,700 cards were being followed up.
A poster child for the personal connection through a mass event
The younger Palau recalled how a combination of parental love and mass evangelism led him back to a faithful Christian life. He told the searchers in the audience that he was in their position at one time.
Although he grew up with a father and mother, Pat, who were loving and patient to tell him about Christ, Andrew wanted something different. He crashed his parents’ car and stoked up the wildness his lifestyle, not bothering to hide his drug pipe all that much from his parents. At University of Oregon he thought it was just natural to be party-hardy with a rum-soaked life-style. He had the flippant brand of attitude that his frat buddies took toward life. Yet, he was missing joy and felt anxious about where his life was going. He became sleepless with a ravenous anxiety and developed a dependence on drugs.
The young Palau paused to note that it was his parents’ consistent, patient love that brought his eyes back to faith. He was like the original prodigal son who partied and lost everything and then looked with envy at the joy and peace that his old family still had.
The parents had one-on-one conversations with him, wrote him letters, and would “sic people on me,” Andrew says laughingly, to get him to listen to their advice about God. Most importantly, Andrew saw that his actions never disturbed their peaceful assurance that God was in control.
Looking across the expanse of people gathered at the Great Lawn threw him back to the day twenty-one years ago when he stood at a similar festival in Kingston, Jamaica. That day, he decided that all his father’s talk about God, repentance, and heaven was for him too.
I am the “poster child of personal connection,” Andrew explained. Those thousand efforts by his parents led up to his moment of decision.
Andrew turned toward Jesus, quit feeding his addictions and found a calmer way of living. He shared at CityFest that his story could be the story of anyone in the audience.
For those who already believed, the young Palau urged that they should not repress their own life-story but share it with others in a natural way. A mention that one prays or applies the Bible to decision-making and life-style choices should come out just as easily and naturally as quoting a blockbuster movie or pop song. And always, Andrew said, be someone who is available to help a friend in need.
Andrew talked about how getting himself right led to other social relationships and changed his social world. At the Kingston, Jamaica festival Andrew met his future wife Wendy. Because Wanda’s sister Amanda was married to Christian rapper TobyMac, the young Palau also found someone that he could lean upon to help him to deal with old relationships from his former lifestyle. When the man with the drugs came, Palau had the back-up to say, No.
Then, TobyMac closed out the night with shrieking guitar, screaming horns, and powerful vocals backed by a smoke machine and flashing lights. When TobyMac held his microphone out to the crowd, they enthusiastically sang his lyrics in unison.
“I was made to love you, made just for you, made to adore you,” tens of thousands of voices sang in a unified personal reflection.